Jewish history is in its way the antithesis of the hermetic. As the Franco-Jewish orientalist James Darmesteter wrote nearly a century ago, “the historian’s special interest in the Jewish nation is due to its being the only one that is met with at every turn of history. In following the course of this nation’s destinies, [the historian] is successively brought into contact with nearly all the great civilizations. . . . The Jewish people, enduring through all times, has helped to shape all great events that have had their day: it is a perpetual and universal witness of all these dramas, and by no means an inactive or mute witness, but closely identified with them in action or in suffering.”1
Darmesteter had in mind “dramas” of a religious and intellectual character. But there is no reason why his assertion would not apply to the socio-economic and political dimensions of the history of Western civilization. That, at any rate, is the assumption which underlies this essay in late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century Jewish history: in the Jewish experience is reflected in some substantial manner the experience of the larger gentile society.
The focus on the link between Jewish and general experience is not merely theoretical. It springs from a sense of the often enough furious upheaval, psychic as well as socioeconomic and political, which technological change has introduced into human patterns of living.
No society has adapted comfortably to the industrial revolution. Indeed, the East European experience was in this respect quite unexceptional. Post-Napoleonic Russia’s troubled entry into the arena of Western civilization, the arena of industrialism and capitalism, made for convulsions in the Romanov empire. Political agitation bestirred itself; anxious dreams of a utopian future were pitted against the reality of czar and boyar and archimandrite and serf. A limited abolition of serfdom was declared, railroads were built, and factories were put into operation. But the old elemental Russia struck back with a swelling Pan-Slavic mystique and a mounting fury against religio-ethnic as well as political dissidence. The crisis received particular expression in its effect on Jewish life in the empire. For the Jews, the empire’s classical pariahs, the earth began shaking underfoot. In unprecedented numbers they began making their way across the frontiers, most of them westward bound.
If the crisis which convulsed late nineteenth-century Russia, the struggle between the socio-economic patterns of the ancien régime and the aspirations of the modernists, found a parallel in the imbalance and insecurity imposed on Jewish life in the czarist territories, America, too, had its Jewish resonance or summation. In the late nineteenth century America’s Western frontier vanished and was replaced by a new industrial frontier concentrated in the Northeast, a development reflected in the rush of Jewish immigrants into the needle trades centered in the metropolises of the East Coast. The uncertainty, indeed the fear, which the new industrial capitalism evoked in the more traditional agrarian, commercial American society has indicia in the sinister image widely imputed to Jews at this stage of American history.
But there is also a Jewish “index” to the farm crisis which America’s conquest by industrialism involved during the postbellum decades. Some of the Jewish immigrants, never very many, were determined to avoid the pavements of the urban West and instead to make a life for themselves in one or another western wilderness overseas: in Louisiana, in Oregon, in Colorado, in Michigan, in Kansas, in South Carolina, in the Dakotas, in New Jersey. For they had been touched, these few, by a special revolutionary passion and a special dream of Utopia. They wished, as Mark Wischnitzer has said, “to initiate a renaissance of Jewish life through productive labor” in collective agricultural settlements,2 though what productive farming meant was something they had insufficient experience to anticipate. Indeed, in the trans-Atlantic West they would find encouragement from their settled, prosperous, bourgeois co-religionists, mostly of Central rather than East European origin, who might not see fit to pursue Utopian schemes for themselves but would find it possible to believe such ordeals suitable for refugees from Stepmother Russia. The efforts by this immigrant minority and its Americanized sponsors to establish Jewish agricultural colonies on American soil proved abortive more often than not, but such failures are not understood without reference to the depressed condition of American agriculture in the late nineteenth century.
In the story of these agricultural undertakings, many strands converge. First is the precarious situation of Jews in Eastern Europe, as the Sidney Bailey memoir (Appendix 2) recapitulates it. Second is the yearning of some Jews for what they thought of as normalization and for Utopian solutions, as Herman Rosenthal’s The Jewish Farmer (Appendix 1) documents them. Third are the anxieties as well as the idealism of Jews well settled in America. And, finally, is the understanding—among Jews in America, too little and too late for permanent effect—that in an industrial age even a farm commune in a remote district offers no escape from industrialism. Such divergencies spell out the experience of East European immigrants among the nineteenth-century American utopians who, in the words of a contemporary writer, “finding themselves utterly out of place and at a discount in the world as it is, rashly concluded that they [were] exactly fitted for the world as it ought to be.”3
In all quotations throughout the text, appendixes, and notes, my interpolations appear in brackets, while those by the respective authors appear in parentheses.